Student Health and Wellness Services

Alcohol and Depressants

The depressant class of drugs, also known as “downers,” works by increasing the brain’s amount of the neurotransmitter GABA. This slows brain function and depresses the central nervous system. The most commonly known depressant drug is alcohol, which is consumed in liquid form. There are also many prescription pills classed as depressants. Prescription depressants include: Benzodiazepines a.k.a. “benzos” (e.g. Valium, Xanax), Sedatives a.k.a. sleeping pills (e.g. Ambien, Lunesta), Barbiturates (e.g. Seconal, Nembutal).

People who use depressants report benefits like:

  • feelings of calm and relaxation 
  • prescription depressants can help them treat anxiety, muscle spasms, sleeplessness and other conditions 

Someone experiencing the effects of a depressant drug: 

  • at low doses, may be more talkative or bold
  • at higher doses, may be confused or uncoordinated
  • at very high doses, their breathing may slow or stop

Potential risks and harms of depressants:

  • Depressants can affect decision-making, causing people to say or do things they normally wouldn’t.
  • Because depressants slow bodily functions, too much can cause someone to stop breathing and possibly die.
  • Long term use can lead to physical dependence and addiction.


Low to moderate amounts of alcohol can produce feelings of relaxation, lowered inhibitions, and increased sociability. Larger amounts can cause dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, slow reflexes, impaired judgement and dehydration. Overdoses and drinking too much in one sitting can cause blackouts (having no memory of what took place), passing out, coma, and death.

Alcohol poisoning is when someone drinks so much alcohol that its depressant effects begin to shut down basic life support functions such as breathing, heart rate and temperature control. One of the reasons it occurs is that many people don’t actually know how much alcohol is in what they’re drinking—the dose.

We can refer to standard drink for dosage of alcohol. A standard drink is defined as 12 oz. of beer at 5% alcohol, 5 oz. of wine around 12% alcohol, or 1.5 oz. of liquor at 40% alcohol. It takes about 60-90 minutes for someone to metabolize one standard drink of alcohol.

It’s possible to overdose on any depressant drug on its own, so combining two—like “benzos” and alcohol drastically increases the risk of overdose and death.

Here are some signs that could indicate that someone has alcohol poisoning:

C – Cold, clammy skin

U – Unconsciousness

P – Puking, particularly while passed out

S – Slowed or irregular breathing

If someone shows signs of alcohol poisoning call 911 and place the person in the recovery position.

Here are some strategies to reduce alcohol related harms:

  • Abstaining from alcohol.
  • Avoid driving after drinking or riding in cars with people who drink and drive, instead have a designated driver or use rideshare. 
  • Avoid going places where underage drinking is occurring.
  • Decide or set a limit on number of drinks.
  • Pace and space out drinking.
  • Avoid mixing substances.
  • Make sure that no one is driving if they were drinking.
  • See that people are getting home safely and leaving with someone they know and trust.
  • Know drug policy.
Please complete this form if you would like to talk with a health educator about alcohol and other drugs
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